Air Marshal (Retd) K.C Cariappa, Indian Airforce

Air Marshal(Retd) K.C Cariappa

Air Marshal (Retd) K.C "Nanda" Cariappa, PVSM, VM, is the son of the legendary Indian Armyman Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa. He was the seventh and the last Indian Air Force POW of the 1965 Indo-Pak War. In 1999, during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan he talked about his experiences as a POW. (taken from "History Repeats" by B.R.R. Gowda in 22/6/1999)

During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Flt Lt K.C.Cariappa was with Indian Airforce No.20 Squadron "Lightnings" flying the Hawker Hunter aircraft. He was deputed to perform air strikes on Pakistani troops at Kasur, in support of army operations. On 22 September, during one of the air raids, he was shot down by Pakistani anti-aircraft fire and was forced to eject from his plane when the controls jammed. Difficulty in negotiating his parachute forced him to land flat on his bottom, in Kasur, a part of Western Pakistan. Wreckage of his aircraft fell inside India near Khem Kharan.

"On reaching the ground, I was immediately surrounded by Pakistani troops. I faintly remember them being commanding me to raise my arms. I couldn't lift my hands up, as I was still numb with shock. But later I realized I was paralyzed due to the fall" recollects the 58-year-old former Air Marshal K.C.Cariappa, now the Managing Director of Information and Business System India Limited. He was then taken by the Pakistani soldiers as a Prisoner of War (POW) to a Brigade Headquarters at Kasur.

Pakistan was then under the military rule of General Ayub Khan, who had worked closely with Field Marshal Cariappa before the partition, and had high regards for him. On realizing the identity of the wounded soldier at Dargil, Radio Pakistan immediately announced the safe capture of Flt. Lt K.C.Cariappa. Gen Ayub Khan, himself contacted Field Marshal Cariappa, who was living a retired life at Mercara, his hometown, with information about his son's safety. When Gen. Khan offered to release his son immediately, Field Marshal is reported to have scoffed at the idea and told him to give his son no better treatment than any other POW. "He is my son no longer." the Old Soldier is reported to have thundered. "He is the child of this country, a soldier fighting for his motherland like a true patriot. My many thanks for your kind gesture, but I request you to release all or release none. Give him no special treatment," the Field Marshal is reported to have said.

All this while Flt. Lt. K.C.Cariappa was not aware that news about his safety had been conveyed back home. "I was kept in the dark and all the while they kept pressurizing me trying to get military secrets like information about the kind of machinery, weapons and officers we had as a consideration for my safe return to India" he recounts. When their efforts turned vain, he was taken along with two others who needed similar medical treatment to the Army headquarters at Luiani. "The Pakistanis treated us well. Although they tried to coerce us into giving information by threats of physical torture, they did not mistreat any of us." Says K.C.Cariappa. "I was then moved to the military hospital at Lahore and kept in solitary confinement for over something that seemed like 10 days" he says. According to him, this is the worst part of his experience. The shadow of the unknown tortured him at length. "During this time I longed for a glimpse of the sun or for someone to share my thoughts with. I did not know what the Paks meant to do with me. I had these long conversations with myself, most of time counselling. In the beginning, it was difficult and then I started enjoying them. I found I had a better friend in me than I could ever find anywhere" recalls Cariappa.

He was then allowed to join the other POWs at Rawalpindi. "There were 57 POWs lodged there. My morale went up on meeting them and the confidence that one day we may be let free built up in the group" he explains. All the time the shadow of uncertainity loomed large over them, despite the fact that the Pakistanis did not indulge in physical abuse. "There was always a kind of fear, like butterflies in the tummy, among the inmates of the camp. The Pakistanis tried their very best to extract information from the POWs using all methods except physical torture. The Chinese torture to break the spirit was commonly used. The Pak soldiers always talked aloud keeping within our earshot of all they planned to do to us. But then somehow they refrained from the third degree treatment" he laughs nostalgically.

However, on the contrary, all the POWs were reported to have been treated with dignity befitting a soldier. They were given three meals a day with puris and tea for breakfast and Chappathis for lunch and dinner. In the beginning there was lack of warm clothes and they were made to sleep on the bare floor but later with the intervention of the Red Cross blankets, sweaters and even mittens were provided.

After five months, the POWs were taken to the Base Camp at Lahore. The war came to an end on 22 September and all the POWs were released and returned safely to Delhi on 22 January 1966.

During the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999, Air Marshal Cariappa was greatly anguished over reports of soldiers' bodies being handed over in mutilated conditions. "The times have changed. During our times there was no such thing. It foxes me who has done this, whether the Paks or the Mujahuddins? But it is common knowledge that the Mujahuddins are being supported by the Paks. I don't think it can be the Paks because it is against the code of conduct of the army of any country to indulge in such things. If it is the Pakistanis, why have they indulged in the third degree treatment of POWs this time and not earlier" he wonders.

He turned down the one theory being put forward by much war researchers that Paks are indirectly warning Indians of dire consequences if they take over. "It is a double edged sword, the Indians can reply in their own way. Maybe the fact India will never stoop to this level may be emboldening them" he reasons.

Even when reminded about Flt. Lt. Ahuja, who ejected from his plane in similar circumstances, shot dead, he replies " One does not know whether Ahuja reached the ground alive or was shot dead mid-air or who shot him. When there is so much mystery, it is not fair to assume things and blame anyone".

He feels the Pakistanis should realize hate begets hate and nothing good can come of torture. They should refrain from third degree treatments or be prepared to face the wrath of the international community.

War, he feels, cannot solve any problem and is pointless and energy consuming. "The only way to sort issues is by talks and discussions," he says. Although both countries, according to him, will have to pay a heavy price for this war, Indians are at a disadvantageous position. " The war is being fought on our soil making us more vulnerable. The cost of security to Siachen Glacier on a daily basis is approximately Rs. five crore. Kargil will be costing much more than this. India cannot afford this and for us it is more advantageous to settle issues across the table" he advises.

"But when we are pushed to a corner, we have no choice but to fight back. My advise to young soldiers is: Be brave and fight. Leave the result to God". He feels people don't remember the soldiers or their brave deeds once the war is over. The only price people can pay for their freedom, according to him, is caring for the war heroes and their families. He regrets that this is not happening. He quotes the lines of a poem by an unknown poet, which incidentally was his father's favourite:

"At times of war,
And not before,
God and Soldier,
We both adore.
When all is righted,
God is forgotten,
And the soldier slighted"

Is anyone listening?